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Beyond Chhattisgarh: Are the Maoists rebels without a cause?

Ever since last week’s massacre in Chhattisgarh, elements of the intelligentsia have launched ferocious search for The Root Cause of violent Maoism—the Holy Grail of India’s left-liberal discourse on terrorism.  It’s been claimed, again and again, that the conflict is being fuelled by the predatory intrusion of the Indian state into the adivasi heartland—through state terrorism, the dispossession of their land, and the impoverishment of peoples by neo-liberalism.

Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not.

There’s a self-evident truth in some of these claims: if Mahendra Karma hadn’t set up Salwa Judum, or if the police had ceded Chhattisgarh to Maoists, they wouldn’t have been bombed. The thing is, this argument cuts two ways. If it is true that the root cause of Maoist violence is Salwa Judum, it must also be true that the root cause of Salwa Judum’s excesses were the Maoist killings that preceded it. The root cause of Maya Kodnani’s savageries in Gujarat, by similar reasoning, were the Muslims who gave her offence by existing—and so you could go on.

As a rhetorical device, the fiction of The Root Cause has its uses, well known to ideologues of both the Left and Right: it evades acknowledgment that the cause of Maoist violence are violent Maoists; the cause of communal carnage, communalists; the cause of terrorist bombings, terrorists.

It has another flaw, though: the things being held out as root causes don’t really stand up to scrutiny.  Policies based on assumptions that aren’t well grounded are doomed to fail.

Let’s start with the claim that mining-related displacement is fuelling Maoism—a proposition endorsed by Union Minister Kishore Chandra Deo.  The thing is, there isn’t actually a lot of mining in Bastar. The National Minerals Development Corporation’s Bailadila mine has been around since 1977. Essar’s ore pipeline from Bailadila to Vishakapatnam has long been shut down, because Maoists blew up its ore-carrying pipeline after milking it for protection money.  Even the Steel Authority of India’s flagship Bhilai plant may have to shut down because Maoists won’t allow a railway line to new ore fields at Rowghat.

AFP

AFP

There’ve been major controversies over mining in neighbouring Odisha, India’s single largest mining state, but it bears mention neither Posco or Vedanta is in significantly Maoist-hit areas.

Last year, Kristian Hoelscher, Jason Miklian and Krishna Chaitanya Vadlamannati tested the correlation between mining and violence levels. Their findings turned up negative: the mining revenues of districts were “unrelated to the presence, frequently and severity of Maoist violence”.

It’s possible, of course, that dispossession-related fears drive adivasi political choices. Even though only about 8% of India’s population is adivasi, they are estimated to make up 40% of those displaced by government projects. Historically, adivasis have been stripped of their traditional rights to forests; thus have very good reason to be afraid. These fears, though, would be shared by adivasis who support Maoists and those that don’t—so can’t in themselves explain the choice.

So, could poverty be driving Maoist recruitment? You’d think this would be a no-brainer. There’s a mass of data that shows that adivasis are the most deprived section of the Indian population, even behind Dalits.  Hoelscher, Miklian and Vadlamannati say “the presence of excluded populations may provide insurgents with a source of support or a pool to recruit from”.

In a paper published last year, economists Devesh Kapur, Kishore Gawande, and Shanker Satyanath suggested a variant explanation. The declining availability of minor forest produce, or MFP, to adivasi communities, could have generated a crisis-inducing shock.

The data, though, doesn’t lend itself to strong claims.  In 1994, a government task force noted Maoists that they had a presence in just a third of India’s 170 most backward districts. Jhabua, very similar in terms of demographics and economics to Bastar, has no Maoist presence.

From Chhattisgarh’s Human Development Report, we also know 62% of villages in the state’s relatively-peaceful northern zone depended on MFP, against 55.3% in the troubled south.

Nandini Sundar—a leading critic of government’s counter-insurgency policies—has summed up the evidence thus: “there is no doubt a strong correlation between areas of high poverty and Naxalism, [but] a causal link or direction has not been established”.  Sundar thus describes poverty as a “context”, rather than a cause.

There’s the intriguing case of top Maoist leader Kobad Gandhy: Doon-school educated, brought up in a Worli apartment, son of a top Glaxo executive, heir to stakes in a hotel in  Mahableshwar and a sprawling bungalow in Panchgani. These kinds of stories are rare, but they tell us something important: some people join causes, misguided or otherwise, because they believe in them.

In addition to these explanations, historian Ramachandra Guha argues human rights violations have led to the escalation of violence.  Salwa Judum, he writes “burnt homes (sometimes entire villages), raped women, and looted granaries of those adivasis who refused to join them. In response, the Naxalites escalated their activities”.  Leaving aside the arguable question of whether Salwa Judum was a cause or consequence of Maoist violence, this can’t be a general explanation.  The fastest-growing theatre of Maoist violence is Gadchiroli, in Maharashtra—an area where Salwa Judum never entered.  Conversely, police in Andhra Pradesh were accused of the same kinds of atrocities as Salwa Judum—but the violence there reduced, instead of increasing.

There are plenty of alternate explanations of how Maoists are born. Expert Ajai Sahni suggests that many young adivasis are joining the Maoists simply because they’re the only powerful force in the region—and having a gun brings you power and wealth. If Sahni is right, throwing development money into Bastar is worse than useless, because it will only enrich the insurgency.

It’s also been argued, among others by former administrator Harsh Mander, that Maoists are successful because they provide public goods—critically justice—in areas where the state has disappeared. If this is the case, expanding administration and economic infrastructure would be key to success.

Each of these explanations might be true, or have some elements of truth, or none at all.  There just isn’t enough empirical evidence to draw firm conclusions.

Perhaps even worse, we don’t know if the problem’s growing or diminishing. In its 2011-2012 annual report, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that 83 districts in nine states were affected by significant levels of Maoist violence. In 2009, former union home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said 223 districts in 20 states—pretty much a third of the country—was affected. In November, 2003, the then-Home Secretary put the number at 55 districts of 20 states.

There’s reason to believe these numbers don’t mean a lot. Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have several districts classified as Maoist-affected, for example, but registered a grand total of zero fatalities in 2011. Large swathes of northern Andhra Pradesh are classified as Maoist-affected, too, but the state had all of nine conflict-related fatalities in 2011. Measured by fatalities, as Firstpost has pointed out, Maoist violence has been in decline since 2010.

This might mean Maoists are running out of steam.  It might also mean security forces are engaging them less, fearful of suffering casualties and causing civilian deaths.  It might be because Maoists don’t want to jeopardise their forest strongholds by starting a premature war.

You’d think the government and analysts would have better data—not the least because both human lives and expensive economic decisions are at stake. There isn’t one single authoritative study, though, of why Maoists make the political choices they do.  To the best of my knowledge, no government has carried out a systematic study even of the social and economic backgrounds of arrested Maoists.

The take-away is this: beware grand theories on the Maoist question.  Like so much else in India, the debate boils down to blind faith, not evidence.